Saturday 21 September 2019

'There’s a lot of gallows humour and a very real sense of darkness to a lot of gardai' - Gavin O'Connor talks Taken Down

Taken Down continues on RTE One tonight at 9.30pm

Gavin O'Connor in Taken Down
Gavin O'Connor in Taken Down
Aoife Kelly

Aoife Kelly

Just two episodes in to new RTE series Taken Down the character of Mackin has already made an impact, thanks to one particularly distasteful scene involving his running commentary on an explicit sexual act, carried out by a recently murdered female teenager, and captured on CCTV.

The series, which charts the garda investigation into the murder of the young woman who had been living in a Direct Provision centre, flits between the two worlds and the many layered characters therein.

For Cork-born actor Gavin O’Connor, that particular scene gives some insight into not only the mentality of Garda Mackin, but how some gardai cope with the darkness they encounter in the course of their work.

“You kind of get the sense that Mackin has always felt he’s never quite good enough.  He’s always been overlooked.  He sees all kinds of young guys coming up through the ranks and being fast-tracked quicker than him, whether it’s down to talent or careerism, but he isn’t,” says O'Connor.  “And that’s why you see a lot of humour in him - he combats those situations through humour.”

RTÉ’s Taken Down
RTÉ’s Taken Down

Mackin has, he says, “sort of lost his filter and a bit of his moral compass along the way”.  In the course of his research for the show he spoke to a senior member of the force, who revealed that this is not an uncommon reaction among gardai when faced with traumatic evidence.  While some seek solace in alcohol, he says, others cope through black humour.

“These are dark guys.  There’s a lot of gallows humour and a very real sense of darkness to a lot of gardai,” says O’Connor, adding, “I think, especially for Irish people, humour and darkness are inextricably linked and entwined.”

Tough competition: Orla Fitzgerald as Niamh and Lynn Rafferty as Jen in Taken Down. Photo by Bernard Walsh
Tough competition: Orla Fitzgerald as Niamh and Lynn Rafferty as Jen in Taken Down. Photo by Bernard Walsh

Many viewers have been shocked by the depiction of Direct Provision in the series and how asylum seekers are processed in this country, with many spending several years living several to a room with little money or opportunity to work.  However, there was also a more insidious reaction to the show - an outpouring of racism on social media following the first episode.

Direct Provision is, the actor says, “a very dehumanising situation to find yourself in”.  He describes the rooms in which people live as ‘cells’ and speaks about the accounts of life inside he heard in the course of his research on the subject.

Aissa Maiga in RTE's Taken Down
Aissa Maiga in RTE's Taken Down

“I heard a story of a man who shared a room with seven other men of varying cultures and religions and the only common denominator, he said, was depression.  I mean that’s an awful circumstance to find yourself in,” he reveals. “I was told another story about a Direct Provision centre and the nearest supermarket was seven miles away.  When you’ve no car and very little money, both literally and metaphorically, that’s very far away.”

He continues, “People are arriving on our shores for all sorts of reasons – fleeing persecution, economic migrants – and we’ve been doing that in our millions for hundreds of years, going back to the Famine, on the run from starvation, that the British government presided over, and they saw us as sub-human.  If anyone knows what it’s like to be persecuted it’s the Irish. We should be compassionate and sympathetic.”

Gavin O'Connor in Taken Down
Gavin O'Connor in Taken Down

Speaking to Eamon Dunphy on The Stand podcast last week, writer Stuart Carolan said the reaction to the series was mixed – on the one hand a discussion had begun about the horrors of Direct Provision, but on the other there was a “sick” and “racist commentary” that he said was “very poisonous”.

Read more: Taken Down creator Stuart Carolan 'shocked by sick, racist commentary' online following series debut

Regarding the trolls, O'Connor says, “A very close friend of mine is a journalist and he gave me this fantastic advice - he said,  ‘look, don’t read them’ so I haven’t.  But if it brings them out into the open then maybe that’s a good thing, to know exactly what you’re dealing with.”

The conversation has begun, he says, and that’s progress although he adds that perhaps “some of them should read history” as “to be Irish is by definition to be an immigrant”.  The “seismic shift” in Irish society in the last couple of years, including the Marriage Referendum, is, he says, “the collective heart of the Irish people”, not the “minority, hiding behind computers, using aliases”.

Trolls aside, the series appears to be resonating with the public, establishing itself within just two episodes as a worthy follow-up to Love/Hate, which was created by the same team and ran for five series.  Taken Down’s debut drew an impressive 445,000 viewers.  If there has been any criticism, if you call it criticism, it’s that it’s its own beast and not Love/Hate Mark 2.

“I think it’s a lot different from Love Hate,” says Gavin.  “I don’t know what people were expecting. It’s a bit more of a slow burner.”

As a “massive fan” of Love/Hate, O’Connor leapt at the chance to be a part of Taken Down which boasts Love/Hate writer Stuart Carolan and director David Caffrey at its helm.  Add crime writer Jo Spain and DOP Cathal Watters (Peaky Blinders, An Klondike), Irish stars Lynn Rafferty, Orla Fitzgerald, Brian Gleeson, top French stars Aïssa Maïga and Slimane Dazi to the mix and signing on the dotted line was a no-brainer.

Viewers may recognise the actor from RTE’s 2015 three-parter Charlie, period drama Titanic: Blood and Steel, or The Tudors, although his latest character is perhaps not quite so svelte as those he has played before.  When he read the script for Taken Down there was a reference to a “bit of flab” and Mackin being overweight so he committed to piling on the pounds.

“I put on 14lbs in four weeks.  You’d think it would be fun, ‘this is going to be great craic!’, but what happens is you’re carrying around extra weight so you feel sluggish and you don’t feel yourself,” he reveals. 

Once the show wrapped he lost it all again in another four weeks.  However, he may well have to tuck into the doughnuts again soon as a second season is highly likely.  As he says himself, “we’re only seeing the genesis of these characters” and the potential for development is limitless.

As for how this first run will wrap, he is, of course, remaining schtum, although he reveals, “I have already been asked the ultimate question by three people close to me and I have had to go, ‘Are you kidding me?  I can’t answer that!".  He laughs, “There’s no way I’ll let any secrets out like that.  No way.  I think they’d set you off on a flotilla and archers on the cliffside would take pot shots at you!”

Taken Down continues on RTE One tonight (Sunday) at 9.30pm.

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